Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 6 of 51

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

Appeal could prove pivotal to auto-glass litigation in Florida

The outcomes of 18 lawsuits — and potentially many more — rest on State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co.’s appeal of a court order to reveal how it decides on a fair price to replace a shattered auto windscreen.

State Farm v. Shazam Auto Glass may be the first test of whether the insurer’s “system pricing” mechanism qualifies as a protected trade secret.

At least, it’s the first that plaintiff’s attorney Rob Haynes, of Christopher Ligori & Associates in Tampa, knows of.

But, in a state where auto glass claims have risen markedly during the past decade, the dispute could prove an important test case.

“We have close to 900 total auto glass cases, and similar firms are doing the same volume,” Haynes said in a telephone interview. “Not all of those are State Farm. But, absolutely, it’s going to come up in the future. That’s why we’re pushing so hard to try to get a positive result in this one. Because if we can get it here, we’ll be able to use it in all the others.”

Hillsborough County Judge Herbert Berkowitz, after reviewing State Farm’s information, ordered it turned over. State Farm appealed. Those 18 cases are set for trial in July, Haynes said — presuming the appeal is resolved by then.

Shazam, armed with an assignment of benefits agreement, is standing in for a State Farm customer in the litigation.

Under the pricing mechanism, the insurer solicits competitive bids, but only from shops within its preferred vendor network, which tend to offer “extremely low” bids, Haynes said.

“But they’ll never pay lower than their system price,” he said. “They won’t let us know how they came up with that pricing — was it generated through software? Was it a separate bid?”

If State Farm wants to argue its system pricing is fair, the company needs to explain the system, Haynes argued. State Farm, by contrast, argues the information is a protected trade secret — and that disclosure would “cause irreparable harm by effectively compelling production of ‘cat out of the bag’ materials.”

Shazam bases its prices on the National Auto Glass Specification standards. Other insurers apply separate industry or internal standards. “They each tend to have their own ways of dealing with glass claims,” Haynes said.

He wasn’t aware of any other insurance companies confronting similar challenges.

“Normally, these cases were resolved via settlements — we were able to work them out,” he said. “Since State Farm insisted on going to trial, we had to take the next step and do our best to protect our clients.”

Not to say that State Farm is more aggressive than its competitors in litigation, he added — just that any trade secrets they asserted were not dispositive.

State Farm fighting disclosure order in AOB-linked auto glass repair dispute

State Farm is fighting a Hillsborough County judge’s order to turn over details of its claims-handling process to an auto glass repair shop that argues the insurer short-changed it for replacing a policyholder’s damaged windscreen.

State Farm claims the information the judge ordered turned over during the spring comprises legally protected trade secrets. Disclosure, it argues in a petition for a writ of certiorari filed on May 9, would “cause irreparable harm by effectively compelling production of ‘cat out of the bag’ materials.”

At the very least, the company argues, the court should order protective measures for the documents — for example, turning it over to the shop’s attorneys only, and forbidding them to share the details with their clients.

“By rejecting State Farm’s trade-secrets and work-product objections, the county court has effectively declared ‘open season’ on these otherwise immune materials,” the motion argues.

The dispute involves a difference of opinion worth more than $400 on Shazam Auto Glass LLC’s bill for fixing State Farm policyholder Christine Jennings’ 2013 Kia Optima. The shop billed at $984.40; State Farm, applying its internal claims practices, including solicitation of competing bids from other shops, paid $568.67. Shazam, which held an assignment of benefits agreement signed by Jennings, filed suit for breach of contract.

Shazam says it needs to see details of State Farm’s national glass program to determine whether the insurer’s adjustment of the claim was biased and the reimbursement amount was reasonable.

State Farm insists: “The sole breach of contract issue framed in Shazam’s complaint is whether State Farm timely paid the claim. This issue can be resolved without information regarding the proprietary business contracts or the methodology and data used by State Farm, in its investigation and adjustment of a claim, to determine payment amounts.”

The Tampa Bay area has become a hotbed of litigation filed by auto glass shots armed with AOB agreements. Statewide, the number of such claims increased from nearly 400 in 2006 to almost 20,000 just 10 years later. Most of those claims were filed in the Bay Area, although South Florida also was represented.

Relatives of inmates riled over proposed tightening of prison visitation

Family and friends of some of Florida’s 97,000 prison inmates offered public testimony Thursday denouncing proposed visitation rules that could make it harder to see their loved ones regularly.

“Limiting visitation is not in the best interest of the citizens of Florida and the communities in which they live,” Michael McBride, the father of an inmate, told officials including assistant deputy secretary for institutions Richard Comerford.

“Constantly, I feel as though I am being punished,” said Vicky Pearl, whose son is in the Florida State Prison. “The pain you are causing is more than any pain my son ever caused, and he is serving 30 years in prison.”

Some 48 people spoke during roughly three hours. Several expressed fear of retaliation against their loved ones or themselves for speaking out. Many pointed to visitation’s value in rehabilitating lawbreakers and keeping the peace behind bars. Others said underpaid, inexperienced corrections officers were more responsible than family members for introducing contraband.

“Let me be a mother to my son,” Jody Chambers Wilson demanded, inspiring applause and many in the audience to rise in ovation. Comerford chastened the crowd, saying, “We will not tolerate outbursts.”

The rules (find them here) would establish three types of visitation. Standard visitation would vary little from the system in place now: Visits would be allowed for six hours every Saturday and Sunday and on state holidays.

Modified visitation would allow visits only every other weekend and on holidays; and emergency or temporary visitation would entail suspension or limitation of visiting privileges in case of disturbances including riots, strikes, or uprisings, or natural disaster or epidemic.

The department already holds the authority to impose those emergency limits — as it did on Memorial Day because of potential flooding in North Florida.

Driving the initiative are concerns that the department lacks enough staff to ensure the safety of visitors and prisoners and to intercept contraband.

“We do have some very high vacancy rates at some of our institutions — particularly in the North Florida region,” said Michelle Glady, spokeswoman for the department. “We want to have an appropriate inmate-to-officer ratio while we’re monitoring visitation.”

Contraband has been increasing throughout the system, she said. “That is one of the things that could trigger the more modified visitation. By canceling visitation on a weekend, it allows for additional searches of the compound. It allows for more staffing and do more efficient searches.”

Secretary Julie Jones and her top aides will review the testimony and other public comments and decide whether to make changes or approve the rules. The department will post updates on its website.

The initiative led family members, former inmates, and their supporters to create the Campaign for Prison Reform, according to Lakey Love, one of the organizers. The group planned to gather outside the Governor’s Mansion later in the day to protest the proposed rules and cuts to mental health and drug rehabilitation programs, plus elimination of offender re-entry and work-release programs, to make up a $79 million deficit.

Love credited the outcry with forcing officials to scale back harsh curtailment of visitation. State law, she said, requires the department to encourage visits by family members. Yet critics fear it would be too easy for officials to make modified visitation the system’s default setting.

“We will challenge them everywhere they go. And if this is the rule they want to stick with, we’ll challenge them on the language,” Love said during a break in testimony.

Although she acknowledged the staffing problem, Love said: “If they have a money problem, they should try to decarcerate,” releasing elderly or ailing inmates who are unlikely to re-offend.

“Cutting visitation is only going to increase numbers in the future, which is going to increase costs,” she added. “They’re cutting all the progressive programs that actually help.”

Glady concurred that testimony during an earlier public hearing led to changes in the wording, including the dropping of language imposing a two-hour minimum for visitation that many family members believed would be the maximum time allowed.

“That was never the intention but, because of the public testimony that was centered on those two hours, we wanted to make sure we clarified that,” she said.

Nursing home attorneys no-show at contempt hearing

Attorneys for a Broward County nursing home didn’t show up for a hearing into its contempt motion against the Agency for Health Care Administration over alleged public records violations.

Scheduling error, said Geoffrey Smith, of the Smith & Associates law firm in Tallahassee, because of a “misunderstanding related to the scheduling of hearings in several ongoing related matters.”

”We continue to look forward to the production of the public record information on the deaths that occurred in Florida during the aftermath of Hurricane Irma,” he said.

Tallahassee Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said he likely couldn’t have resolved the case within the hour allotted anyway, because he’d realized the parties would need to present evidence rather than merely argue points of law.

He asked Michael Williams, an assistant general counsel to the agency, who did attend the scheduled hearing, to get in touch with the other side to reschedule.

“It seems like there’s really a factual dispute,” Lewis said.

“I would suggest to the plaintiffs, if they were here, that they go ahead and pay whatever fee and let you get going,” he added. “And I’ll reserve jurisdiction on whether that’s a reasonable time and that’s a reasonable fee.

“If you’ll relay that, we’ll just let them reset this hearing for a little longer.”

Williams declined to comment following the hearing.

The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was the site of patient deaths as Hurricane Irma knocked out its power supply, and with it, the air conditioning. Twelve patients died, and the state later went after the facility’s license.

In the subsequent court battle, the nursing home filed a public records request for death certificates filed with the state between Sept. 9 and Sept. 16, during Irma and shortly afterward.

In part, the facility objects to the state’s demand for nearly $6,000 before it produces the data.

Florida CAT Fund healthy, but council contemplates doomsday scenario

The Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund has reserves enough to easily cover its Hurricane Irma liabilities — as much as $300 million in excess of its $17 billion statutory liability limit.

But what happens if a major storm — or a swarm of them — wipes out the fund’s assets? It might have to demand emergency assessments of a broad array of policyholders.

Council staff stressed during an advisory council meeting Thursday that they were talking really-bad-case scenarios. But it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, chief operating officer Anne Bert said.

“We certainly faced that in 2006, because we wiped out the CAT Fund in ’04 and ’05,” she said.

“It’s not the worst. The worst would be if we didn’t have any pre-event bonds,” Bert said. Still, “This one’s pretty bad.”

The fund floats those “pre-event” bonds as contingency against disasters.

A wipe-out would leave it with $2.75 billion in liquid assets. It likely could float another $8.2 billion in bonds at that point, but the fund would need to borrow an additional $6 billion-plus to rebuild its reserves.

Those emergency assessments would pay debt service on such “post-event” bonds, Bert said.

“None of this is fee money. We have to pay it back. And we will turn to the policyholders of the state of Florida to help us pay it back,” Bert said.

As for a bond issue, “Hopefully, the market would allow us to do that,” she said.

She referred to the capital market — infusions from private reinsurance companies or Wall Street actors looking for places to park cash.

“Interest rates are low right now. There are people looking for yield,” Bert said. “They just are.”

Back to the present: The fund holds $14 billion in cash, and is looking into selling $1 billion in risk to the capital markets. It controls $2.2 billion in pre-event bonds.

“We’re in great shape,” Bert said.

According to a Raymond James analysis, the three major rating agencies have given the fund their top rankings not least on the strength of its $46.8 billion premium base. The fund could raise $2.8 billion in assessments to cover storm damage during a single contract year.

The industry-wide loss from Irma has been estimated at more than $8 billion. The fund’s share exceeds $2 billion, nearly $400 million of which it has paid thus far. Its client insurers typically prefer to be paid in installments, according to fund staff.

Task force OKs $1.3 million in grants to advance military

A state task force on Thursday approved grants worth nearly $1.33 million for projects designed to support military installations and preserve Florida’s reputation as the most military-friendly state.

They included land and easement buys neighboring the Avon Park Air Force Range and Camp Blanding; development of a Bay County innovation center to advance amphibious warfare; and support for efforts to lure the MQ-9 Reaper drone wing to Tyndall Air Force Base, also in Bay County.

The programs are designed to help the state adjust as advances in technology revolutionize defense strategy, potentially rendering the military programs that comprise the state’s second-biggest economic driver obsolete.

“Our operations here are being devalued,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, the Pensacola Republican who chairs the Florida Defense Support Task Force.

“We’ve got to do a better job of communicating that to our members in the Legislature,” he said. “The people that represent this group are the eyes and ears of 20 major installations that are telling us what’s important to them.”

Florida enjoys one unique asset, however — the 120,000-acre military testing range in the Gulf of Mexico. It contributes an estimated $80 billion to Florida’s economy, and the task force is intent on protecting it from encroachment by oil exploration or other incursions.

There’s not enough oil out there to compensate for the range’s loss, Broxson said.

The Avon Park plan envisions purchase of easements on nearly 370 acres north of the test range. Because the area lacks extensive artificial lighting, pilots can practice night attack missions there, said Gaye Sharpe, director for parks and natural resources for Polk County. The panel approved $90,000.

It OK’d another $500,000 for “sentinel landscape” program to preserve farms, ranches and forests in “military-influence planning areas” surrounding the facility.

Camp Blanding is the training center for the Florida National Guard, active duty troops, and a number of law enforcement agencies. The panel signed off on $500,000 to leverage $1 million in Department of Defense money to expand the buffer zone between the camp and its neighbors and wetlands.

Bay County sought $120,000 to begin building an Expeditionary Innovation — or EXCell — Center in support of the Navy’s surface warfare, diving and salvage training center, and experimental diving unit in Bay County. It got $95,000.

The program would leverage academic, military, and private resources to develop new technologies and strategic thinking, said Christopher Moore, of the Bay Defense Alliance.

The Air Force has indicated that Tyndall is its preferred site for the Reaper program, but Vandenburg Air Force Base in California is also in the running. The panel approved $144,000 for a program is designed to demonstrate community support for integrating the program, projected to bring 1,600 jobs into the area, said Loretta Costin of Gulf Coast State College.

Pam Bondi lawsuit accuses opioid industry of racketeering

Attorney General Pam Bondi filed a racketeering lawsuit Tuesday, blaming five major pharmaceutical companies for instigating the opioid drug crisis and alleging “a campaign of misrepresentations and omissions” about the powerful painkillers to doctors and consumers.

Bondi’s office filed the 54-page complaint in Pasco County, which it identified as among the state’s hardest hit areas, with the highest overdose mortality rate between 2004 and 2012.

“We are in the midst of a national opioid crisis claiming 175 lives a day nationally and 15 lives a day in Florida, and I will not tolerate anyone profiting from the pain and suffering of Floridians,” Bondi said in a written statement.

“The complaint I filed today seeks to hold some of the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers and distributors responsible for their role in this crisis and seeks payment for the pain and destruction their actions have caused Florida and its citizens,” she said.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam appeared alongside Bondi at a news conference, held Tuesday afternoon at Riverside Recovery of Tampa, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation facility.

“This lawsuit will result in the resources for additional treatment, prevention, awareness, additional facilities, like this, additional tools and support for the men and women in law enforcement, so that we can break the hold that this opioid crisis has on our state and on our nation,” Putnam said.

The lawsuit names Purdue Pharma L.P.; Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc.; Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc.; Cephalon Inc.; and Allergan PLC.

It also names the following drug distributors: AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp.; Cardinal Health Inc.; McKesson Corp.; and Mallinckrodt LLC.

The complaint alleges violations of Florida RICO and unfair trade practices laws, plus negligence.

It seeks unspecified monetary damages — including treble damages, designed to discourage egregious misconduct; restitution on behalf of state agencies and consumers; disgorgement of “ill-gotten proceeds;” divestment of any business or real assets linked to the alleged misconduct; and forfeiture of property used to promote the scheme.

“The state of Florida brings this civil action to hold the defendants accountable for unconscionably creating the state of Florida’s opioid public health and financial crisis,” the complaint says.

“The defendants reaped billions of dollars in revenues while causing immense harm to the state of Florida and its citizens, and now they must pay for their role in the crisis and act to remediate the crisis.”

Pasco and Pinellas counties, comprising FDLE District 6, recorded the highest number of oxycodone deaths in the state during 2016, according to the document. That same year, the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office treated nearly 2,00 inmates for opioid addiction. Last year, someone overdosed in Pasco County an average of once every three days.

“The disproportionately high overdose rates were the direct, readily foreseeable result of the shockingly high amounts of opioids which have been funneled into Pasco County throughout the crisis,” the complaint says.

“For example, a single pharmacy in Hudson, Florida — a Pasco County town of 34,000 people — purchased 2.2 million opioid pills in just one year (2011). That same year, another pharmacy dispensed more than 1.4 million opioids in Port Richey, Florida.”

Bondi’s office alleged a “strategic campaign of misrepresentations about the risks and benefits of opioid use to physicians, other prescribers, consumers, pharmacies, and state governmental agencies.”

This, the complaint alleges, included the use of “front organizations” and medical professionals hired to promote opioids without acknowledging that they actually served as the manufacturers’ “mouthpieces.”

“Because they are so dangerous and addictive, Florida imposes obligations on both manufacturers and distributors of opioids aimed at preventing the misuse of these drugs and their diversion into the marketplace for uses other than legitimate medical uses,” the complaint says.

“Because of the actions of the defendants in violating these duties, the closed chain of supply broke down in Florida, leading to a massive public health crisis that continues to ravage the state.”

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis issued a written statement endorsing the lawsuit and calling Bondi “a fearless warrior against the opioid epidemic.”

Update: Putnam said state GOP leaders, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Sen. Wilton Simpson, Rep. Jim Boyd, and Bondi, have “led the way” in fighting opiates.

Gwen Graham, seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, disputed that assessment.

“After years of inaction and with just months left in their terms, Pam Bondi, Adam Putnam and Republican leaders stood at a news conference today to take credit for a lawsuit that should have been filed years ago,” Graham said in a written statement.

“I’m glad they are finally taking this long overdue step but remain disappointed it took them so long to do so,” Graham said. “Under Lawton Chiles, Florida led the nation in suing big tobacco. Under Pam Bondi and Adam Putnam, we’re following behind other states — and Florida families have paid the price.”

Sean Shaw, a Democrat running for attorney general, issued the following statement:

“Unfortunately, today’s action is too little too late for the families in our state who have been devastated by a preventable epidemic had action been taken years ago before we reached this tipping point. It is disheartening that it took eight years of warnings, thousands of unnecessary deaths, and for her time in office to be coming to an end for Attorney General Bondi to finally acknowledge that Floridians have been facing an overwhelming opioid crisis.

“As attorney general, I won’t wait until others have acted to be an advocate for Floridians who are suffering. Our state deserves a top legal officer who will lead in the face of a crisis, not one who will have to be pressured into acting in the best interests of our citizens.”

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Info used to combat AOB abuse triggers lawsuit over ‘secrets’

Details of insurance claims gleaned for the ongoing battle against assignment of benefits (AOB) abuse are “trade secrets” that should be shielded from public view, a new lawsuit says.

Universal Property & Casualty Insurance Co. recently filed in Leon County Circuit Civil court against the Office of Insurance Regulation (OIR), seeking to block it from complying with a public records request. Thomas Crabb of The Radey Law Firm in Tallahassee represents Universal in the action.

In the complaint, the insurer identified the source of that request as Gray Proctor of Orlando, who sought details of individual homeowner claims and the procedures for processing those claims. His website describes him chiefly as an appellate attorney who also offers trial support services.

Similar suits are filed every year, generally after an interested party has filed a records request seeking to use “open source intelligence,” or public records, to gain a business advantage on its competitors.

But the “Florida Legislature has expressly made trade secrets confidential and exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act,” the complaint asserts.

State law describes a trade secret as business information that is secret; of value; of use in business; and of advantage to the business or to competitors who might learn of the information. The owner of the secrets must have taken steps to preserve their confidentiality.

The complaint identifies Universal as Florida’s largest homeowners insurer, with more than 600,000 policies in force bringing premiums in excess of $900 million per year. That’s 180,000 policies more than the second largest, Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

It cites industry-wide “data calls” in 2015 and 2017, as the insurance office attempted to come to grips with the extent of AOB abuse. The office, individual insurers and business allies have long complained that unscrupulous contractors and attorneys take advantage of AOB agreements to milk insurers.

OIR demanded “granular” information about individual claims filed against the company, including claims numbers, locations of loss down to the zip code; policy limits; “house characteristics” including size, ownership status, year constructed, and age of the roof; and details of any AOBs, including the identities of any contractors and attorneys involved.

“Because of (Universal’s) position as the largest insurer of residential property in Florida, its data is among the most, or the most, comprehensive and robust compilation provided to OIR,” the complaint says.

The data “provides claims-level insight” into Universal’s internal procedures, “including but not limited to how it compensates claims counsel, how it handles water extraction/mitigation costs, how it negotiates claims in litigation, and how it manages its loss adjustment expenses.”

Moreover, the data would allow a competitor to identify AOB “hot spots” that could guide underwriting decisions. “Another carrier could use (Universal’s) data in conjunction with, or in lieu of, its own to evaluate where to write or not write policies.”

Additionally, third parties, including water-mitigation companies, could benefit from the data during negotiations with Universal, the complaint says: “Entering the requested injunction will serve the public interest.”

“… The Florida Legislature has found that the harm in disclosing trade secrets significantly outweighs any public benefit from disclosure and that the public’s ability to scrutinize and monitor agency action is not hampered by nondisclosure of trade secrets.”

The lawsuit seeks a judicial declaration that the info it provided to the insurance office is secret and exempt from disclosure, and an injunction barring the office from releasing the information.

Citizens Insurance board OK’s $1 billion-plus reinsurance plan

Citizens Property Insurance Corp. will transfer $1.42 billion in risk to the reinsurance and capital markets — a move its leadership said would leave it with reserves sufficient to cover a major storm.

The policy, adopted unanimously during a telephone conference call of Citizens’ board of governors, “will allow us to face the upcoming wind season for the fourth consecutive year with no potential assessment risk in a one-in-100-year storm,” chairman Christopher Gardner said.

Notwithstanding $1.8 billion in losses to Hurricane Irma, a “substantial surplus has been accumulated in all accounts to pay for future claims,” according to an executive summary of the plan.

Citizens, Florida’s property insurer of last resort, has been transferring risk during recent years to a variety of third parties, including the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, traditional reinsurance providers, and the capital markets.

The amount includes $480 million in risk capacity left over from 2017.

“This in turn also provides for additional claims paying resources in the event that multiple hurricanes strike Florida. Citizens’ private reinsurance programs are structured to also provide liquidity to Citizens by allowing Citizens to obtain reinsurance recoveries in advance of the payment of claims after a triggering event,” the document says.

“Over the last six years, Citizens executed a total of $3.1 billion of multi-year, collateralized reinsurance placements in the capital markets with Everglades Re. These placements not only provided an overall reduction in the pricing of reinsurance programs but also enabled Citizens to expand the diversity of reinsurance sources and reach new market participants,” it adds.

State law requires Citizens to pass the hat among its policyholders if it is unable to pay losses arising from covered property.

Customers clamor for ‘undergrounding’ during PSC storm-hardening workshop

Large electric customers and local governments complained about communications meltdowns and urged large-scale “undergrounding” of Florida’s electric infrastructure during the second day of Public Service Commission workshops about hurricane preparedness and restoration.

Public Counsel J.R. Kelly seconded the motion regarding the communications problems during and following Hurricane Irma, when customer calls crashed utilities public information switchboards and websites. Many of those customers were holed up in hotels hundreds of miles from home.

“There were some instances when customers were told, ‘Yes, your power’s back on.’ They checked out of their hotel only to find out that their power had never been back on. At that point in time, they were stranded,” Kelly told members of the PSC.

The workshops opened on Wednesday, when executives from publicly owned utilities testified about their preparations and responses to recent major hurricanes, including Irma, which inflicted damage widely up and down the state. They conceded the communications breakdown and said the problems have been fixed.

The next step is for the PSC staff to draft recommendations that the commission will take up on June 19.

Kelly had no specific remedies to offer Thursday, although he was working on them.

“Do the benefits exceed the costs — that’s the key,” he said.

The conversation centered on the difficulty in deciding how best to hedge the state’s resources against an uncertain risk, given that there’s no way to know when storms will hit, at what strength, in what numbers.

As Commissioner Donald Polmann put it: do we sink more money into repairing that old beater, or do we invest in a new Tesla? The answer requires weighing any number of hypothetical possibilities, he said.

“We’re struggling with that,” Polmann said. “It’s a very difficult thing. We’re working hard to figure out what to do.”

Following the workshop, Kelly emphasized that ratepayers have been paying to harden the grid against storms since 2006, including replacing wooden poles with sturdier stuff like concrete or steel, plus preemptive tree trimming.

The PSC lets utility companies maintain reserve funds to repair damage from storms above usual wear and tear. They have to justify this spending to the PSC, he added. In fact, hearings arising from Hurricane Matthew are scheduled in about three weeks, and the PSC will look into Irma spending later this year.

Kelly wants to make sure the money is spent wisely. “I don’t want to see their rates go up without some very solid, valid reasons to do so,” he said.

In the past, Kelly’s office has negotiated rate settlements allowing utilities to assess surcharges following big storms, subject to review and possible rebates depending on whether that spending was justified.

“In Matthew, we believe there may be some money refunded. But it will depend on the final determination made by the commission,” he said.

To Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski, the attractions of undergrounding are patent. Her city saw extensive damage to trees and power infrastructure in Irma, with many of its Duke Energy customers going without electricity for six days.

City leaders believe strongly enough to have invested community redevelopment money to bury its downtown power infrastructure.

“Common sense tells you that as a system is getting older, you need to get to new technology and new ways of doing things. That’s what undergrounding is,” she said.

“Yes, it’s going to be expensive initially,” she conceded.

But then: “Maintenance will be less — that’s a cost savings. Vegetation trimming will be less — that’s a cost savings. I’m sure there are many other pieces to that puzzle — probably, updated technology able to isolate where a problem is. Less cost in the future.”

Jon Moyle, representing the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, agreed that communications and undergrounding are important considerations.

“I don’t know that undergrounding necessarily solves all the problems,” he said. “There are problems associated with undergrounding that include flooding, that include tree root growth impinging upon undergrounding. When you do have a problem, it’s harder to fix. You may not have as frequent of issues but, when you do, it’s a challenge.”

Scheff Wright, a Tallahassee attorney representing the Florida Retail Federation, tended to agree that money spent burying power cables is money not spent on trimming vegetation. He represents a number of municipal governments that are going underground.

“It’s facially obvious. It makes it more reliable, because you don’t have touch outages and you don’t have vegetation-caused outages,” he said. Especially considering that elevated lines can suffer damage from debris tossed by the wind from areas outside the right of way where utilities are expected to trim.

“If you did it and you didn’t have another storm for 40 years, you would look back and say, ‘No, that was not a cost-effective decision.’ But if a city that makes that investment and suffers a direct hit, they will have more than paid for everything in one storm. In year two, they will have really saved a lot of money.”

This, to Bujalski, was the bottom line.

“Undergounding shouldn’t be polarizing,” she said. “We know it’s the right thing to do. It’s how do we it effectively, efficiently, over a period of time where it’s not going to kill anyone financially.”

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